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#9 UNC vs Georgia Tech: Game Preview

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UNC returns to Atlanta. Their last trip to Georgia didn’t go so well.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, the wait is over. North Carolina heads down to Atlanta and will take on Georgia Tech tomorrow evening. After last taking the court last Monday against Virginia Tech, the Heels will be well rested with the nine day lay-off from competitive games. Al already covered three things to watch, so here’s a slightly more comprehensive preview.

Georgia Tech (11-9, 3-4 ACC)

Projected Staters

G: Jose Alvarado (SO) 6-0/175, 13.5ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.3 apg
G: Michael Devoe (FR) 6-4/190, 8.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.4 apg
G: Curtis Haywood II (SO) 6-5/200, 7.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.2 apg
F: James Banks III (JR) 6-8/245, 10.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.3 apg
F/C: Abdoulaye Gueye (SR) 6-9/210, 6.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 0.9 apg

What to Know: Currently sitting in eighth place in the ACC, Georgia Tech is on pace to have their best conference finish under third-year coach Josh Pastner. This is fine, right?

That isn’t to say the Heels won’t have a tough game. Most fans remember the Heels dropped a shocking loss during their last trip to Atlanta, which likely played a role in convincing voters to give Pastner the 2016-2017 ACC Coach of the Year honors after an 11th place finish. Fans also probably remember that UNC won both the ACC regular season and NCAA national championships that year. So, basically, awards are meaningless. Whatever.

Anyway, Georgia Tech is not great, but they are good enough to cause major headaches. With the exception of a bad loss to Gardner-Webb, they’ve won every game they should have. They also snagged key road wins at Arkansas and Syracuse. This is largely accomplished thanks to ranking 13th in defensive efficiency (very good), while falling to 243rd in offensive efficiency (comically bad). They are a regular Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde on opposite ends of the court.

The cause of their defensive success is an effective array of zone defenses. Think of it as a hybrid between Virginia’s pack line defense and Syracuse’s zone. Four players that stand 6’8 or taller, led by 6-8 junior James Banks (10.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg), average more than 10 minutes per game. They help clog up the middle on defense allowing the perimeter defenders to extend and contest outside shots.

Whether it’s a match-up point zone, an extended 1-3-1, or amoeba-like 1-2-2, Tech’s defense lulls opponents into poor shots and coughing up the ball over 20% of the time. That style just held Duke to a season low 66 points on Saturday. They want to make the game as ugly as possible to stay within striking distance, hoping their opponents make enough mistakes to lose.

Offense, however, is a completely different issue. Despite a middle-of-the-pack adjusted tempo of 68.4 possessions per game, they’re averaging just a paltry 68.4 ppg (291st in the country). In other words, thanks to the aforementioned atrocious offensive efficiency, their lack of scoring can’t be solely blamed on a slow pace. No, Tech is simply anemic when they have the ball. Shooting just 52.5% from two and 30.8% from three, generating points has been a consistent struggle.

This largely based on their offense being led by a ball-dominant guard in Jose Alvarado. First on the team in points (13.5) and assists (3.3), and 3rd in rebounding (3.9), the offense relies almost solely on his production. In conference, those numbers rise to 14.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, and 4.0 apg. Using high ball-screens and flat 1-4 sets, Georgia Tech tries to get Alvarado running downhill into the lane to shoot or dish. Much like Chris Lykes at Miami or Justin Robinson at Virginia Tech, the offense runs through Alvarado’s hands.

#9 North Carolina (15-4, 5-1 ACC)

Projected Starters

PG: Coby White (FR), 6-5/185, 14.9 pts, 3.2 reb, 4.0 asst
SG: Kenny Williams (SR), 6-3/165, 9.0 ppg, 3.2 reb, 4. asst
SF: Cameron Johnson (SR), 6-8/185, 15.5 ppg, 5.6 reb, 2.2 asst
PF: Luke Maye (SR), 6-8/225, 14.4 ppg, 9.7 reb, 2.2 asst
C: Garrison Brooks (SO), 6-9/215, 8.4 ppg, 5.8 reb, 1.2 asst

The major storyline for UNC fans will be focused around Nassir Little and the recent improvement in his play. In conference play, he’s averaging 10.0 pts and 4.5 rebounds in just 17.5 minutes a game. How high is his ceiling, how much more playing time can he get, and who would cede minutes to the surging freshman?

Those questions will be answered in time, but Georgia Tech offers another opportunity for Little to serve as an offensive spark. Was Virginia Tech a fluke against an undermanned and undersized opponent? Or has Little turned a corner, giving this team an athletic slasher they have sorely been missing?

Luckily, Roy Williams’ teams tend to be assassins against the zone. His traditional hi-lo conventional style with multiple big men let his teams feast from the pocket at the foul line or in the short corner. Last season, Theo Pinson added a wrinkle to that dominance against Syracuse, serving as a facilitator instead of shooting or attacking the rim. Little, standing at just 6-6 and less of a playmaker than Pinson was, should serve as a hybrid threat along the baseline and/or attacking from the elbow.

The ability of Little, Luke Maye, and Garrison Brooks to earn points in the paint could be the difference. Though UNC is shooting a respectable 37.5% from three on the season and 39% in ACC play, Georgia Tech’s opponents are shooting just 26.5% from deep. That number drops to 25.2% in conference. (FWIW, Duke, though not as potent from deep as previous teams, finished 2-21 from behind the line on Saturday).

North Carolina has struggled to win or put games away when the deep ball isn’t falling. The more they struggle, the more they have forced quick or ill-advised shots. That habit will be put to the test tomorrow night. The best way to get open shots against Georgia Tech is to keep both the ball and players moving inside and outside, forcing the defense to scrambling and creating positional imbalance on the floor. Here’s a quick video showing how UNC was successful last season.

If they hit a rough shooting patch, the easiest way to get more opportunities is to crash the boards. As with most zone-reliant teams and inefficient offenses, Georgia Tech struggles to grab rebounds on both ends of the court. For the year they are actually getting outrebounded, 693 to 686. The disparity is directly caused by allowing teams to grab 30.3% of their offensive rebound opportunities. Through seven conference games, they have been out-rebounded on the offensive glass 92-46 and are allowing 10.2 ORBs per game.

North Carolina has been the opposite, grabbing 35.5% of their offensive rebounding chances through the year. That has led to an 86-59 advantage in six ACC games with an average of 12.3 ORBs per game. Making the most of those extra possessions will go a long in securing UNC’s fourth road win of the season. Don’t be surprised if multiple Tar Heels finish tomorrow night with a double-double.

Prediction:

Georgia Tech will try to muddy up UNC’s offense with multiple defensive adjustments, but the Heels should figure it out by the first media time-out of the second half. Expect a low(er) scoring affair.

North Carolina: 78

Georgia Tech: 65